Pleasant To A Fault

Hugh Grant is right at home as an affable slacker in 'About a Boy.'

Movie Review

May 17, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Let other critics complain about cookie-cutter crowd-pleasers with tormented adolescents battling super-villains and yearning for unreachable damsels in distress.

What about the shared banalities of this season's "human" critical favorites? Join two antithetical characters by accident, leap continually between them, fuel their antagonism to flashpoint, bond them indelibly in an upbeat finish - and you have the urban thriller Changing Lanes as well as today's delayed-coming-of-age comedy, About a Boy.

In what may be a key theme for 2002, both depict hollow city slickers finding their soul when they help psychologically damaged strangers. For flesh-and-blood entertainment, I prefer the blockbusters.

About a Boy, at least, is pleasant - maybe too pleasant. This smooth heart-warmer for hipsters centers on a 38-year-old London slacker, Will (Hugh Grant), who discovers the joys of fellow-feeling when he befriends a sad 12-year-old misfit named Marcus (Nicholas Hoult). It proceeds super-slickly along parallel tracks; even a suicide attempt by Marcus' mom registers as little more than a speed bump.

The co-directors, Paul and Chris Weitz, who co-wrote the script with Peter Hedges, cushion the characters' ups and downs with dual narrations that direct audience responses as surely as a sitcom laugh track.

Will's jokey narration provides cheekiness. With the royalties from his songwriter father's one hit, a ubiquitous Christmas tune named "Santa's Super Sleigh," he's turned his entire house into a deluxe home entertainment center. Will contends that in this age of nonstop distractions, a man can be an island.

Marcus' precocious narration provides sardonic pathos: He loves his depressed hippie vegetarian mother Fiona (Toni Collette) and does anything to cheer her up, whether throwing her together with the first eligible bloke he can find, the wildly inappropriate Will, or singing along with her to pop-rock standards like the Gimbel/Fox Roberta Flack hit, "Killing Me Softly."

The Weitz brothers, the American auteurs behind the unruly and authentic coming-of-age smash American Pie, haven't homogenized Nick Hornby's novel in predictable ways. In other words, they don't pair Will off with Fiona. But in echoing the work of Billy Wilder, they go after the cynicism-streaked-schmaltz of borderline works like Wilder's over-praised The Apartment. And they do it without Wilder's damnable authority: The pull-out-all-the-stops finale of Marcus' high school rock show is a feel-good shambles.

The Weitzes' few "inventions" are actually so familiar they reduce comedy-drama to comfort food - for example, Fiona confronts Will about his friendship with Marcus in a restaurant so that eavesdroppers can wonder whether Will's a pedophile.

The rude side of novelist Hornby's pop-rock sensibility occasionally connects with the Weitzes' comic instincts and stimulates a genuine belly laugh. Will's marathon swim toward salvation starts with promising pith. When he realizes single mothers comprise an unexplored dating pool, he goes to an all-female meeting of SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together) and is so rattled by the group enumeration of male sins that on the voice-over he says he felt like cutting his own penis off.

For those of us who've seen Bridget Jones's Diary, Kissing Jessica Stein and any number of lesser romantic comedies, About a Boy provides the mild pleasure of seeing new cliches like bad-date montages done from a male perspective.

But Grant's puckishness has become overly packaged; what's new about him here is his spiky hairdo. This movie is built on an actor as well as a character who is too intent to be on his best behavior. I've always enjoyed Grant, not just as a leading man in hits like Four Weddings and a Funeral, but as the fop in Restoration and the utter rotter in An Awfully Big Adventure. If his vitality derives from some deep well of naughtiness, Grant would be nuts to run away from it; here, as a man whose vices amount to nothing more than commitment-phobia and laziness, he carries the same slender melancholy as an over-the-hill male model. He bemoans his own shallowness with embarrassing authority.

Then again, Grant's crack timing is all that keeps you chuckling and hoping for surprise. Toni Collette is too good as Fiona - the movie is too narrowly gauged to accommodate her intensity. And Rachel Weisz doesn't get a chance to sizzle as she did in Enemy at the Gates; as the smart, together woman Will pursues seriously, she might as well have "romantic destiny" stamped on her forehead. The most daring casting is young Hoult as Marcus; he's soft and girlish and has odd Vulcan eyebrows on his rounded face. But there's nothing startling about the denouement. It's hard to stomp on a movie that pulls together a rich lay-about, hippies, a punk girl and an Amnesty International worker in a sort of Peaceable Kingdom, but About a Boy shows the limits of affability.

About a Boy

Starring Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz

Directed by Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz

Rated PG-13

Released by Universal

Running time 101 minutes

SUN SCORE: ** 1/2

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